The Commodification of Feminism

Imagine this: an army of women saunter confidently towards you. Many of them carry placards, with messages such as “history is her story” and “ladies first”. At the front of the troop walks a woman dressed in a plaid suit, who is carrying a megaphone and demanding to know “what do we want?!”. On each side of the long line of women are photographers, determined to get the perfect shot of this display of protestation.

I can think of no scenario better.

Now imagine this: every woman in the protest group is thin. Every woman is young. Every woman is beautiful with regards to Western ideals. Few - if any - of these women are women of colour. The protest is staged, in order to sell ready-to-wear high-fashion garments. The photographers are paid to be there. The women are professional models. And the man who has arranged the whole thing is a raging misogynist.

On the 30th of September, Karl Lagerfeld transformed his Chanel ready-to-wear fashion show into a faux street entitled Boulevard Chanel No.5. He sent some of the most popular Western models, led by Cara Delevingne, down the street carrying placards that appeared to encourage feminist activism. He even sent a lone male model down the catwalk at one point with a sign reading “HeForShe”, a not-so-subtle nod toward Emma Watson’s speech at the UN from the previous week.

So what’s the problem?

Feminism has become quite popular recently. Not with regards to actual activism and feminist conversation, but as a medium through which to sell. Clothes, makeup, deodorant, food, and shoes have all been subject to advertisements that appear to encourage women’s liberation whilst simultaneously oppressing women. The movement has become commercialised to the point where sparkly “feminist” and Venus sign necklaces are available in abundance on the internet. And this is no different. In fact, this is far worse.

High fashion is an industry that is determinedly and inherently anti-feminist. High fashion is an industry that dictates what exactly women should look like each season. High fashion is an industry that encourages unhealthy weight obsessions, due to their aversion to using models any larger than a size 0 (size 4 or below in England). High fashion is an industry that frequently uses images of decapitated, deceased, and sexually assaulted women in their print editorials. High fashion is an industry that perpetuates racial stereotypes and refuses to represent women of colour on the same level as white women. High fashion is an industry that fetishizes and sexualises the idea of youth.

Lagerfeld appears to have suddenly had a change of heart from the problematic opinions he’s voiced in the past. His comment of “I don’t see why every human being is not on the same level, especially in my business”, which was directed at reporters after his successful show, is a far cry from his comments of: “No one wants to see curvy women. You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying thin models are ugly. Fashion is about dreams and illusion” from 2009, or his claim that Coco Chanel could not have been a feminist because “[shewas never ugly enough for that“ in Harper’s Bazaar.

His ‘feminist’ fashion show is nothing more than a cry for attention - and it seems to have worked. He has manipulated and taken advantage of the fact that feminism is currently trendy, and has used this fact to further increase the popularity of his brand.

But what does this mean for modern feminism? There is a chance - a small chance - that this will be a positive thing. That it will encourage younger women to research and educate themselves on feminism. That it will persuade them that ‘feminism’ is not a scary word.

Maybe - but probably not. Feminism and fashion are polar opposites of one another. One disseminates the concept of ideals, expectations, and the perfect image. The other is inclusive, non-discriminatory, and reminds women that they are not defined by their appearance. High fashion is the industry that dictates this season’s trends and style. With Lagerfeld focussing an entire show on the concept of feminism, it can only be assumed that other labels will follow suit. Feminism, a movement that is already commercialised to the point of appropriation, is going to be ‘in’ this season. But the version of feminism that is going to be ‘in’ is the type that Lagerfeld perpetuated in his show - young, skinny, beautiful, and white.

Words by Sophie Elliott
Photo source